Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,
written by Jack Weatherford
narrated by Jonathan Davis
This book wasn’t quite what I expected – I figured it would be about Genghis Khan’s life, but it was actually just as much about how his legacy formed the modern world. Which, I must say, was a delightful surprise. 

The first half of the book chronicled Genghis Khan’s life, starting with a very interesting childhood. I loved how much detail was included about Genghis Khan’s strong-willed mother. She was kidnapped from her first husband soon after their marriage, and was awarded to her captor, Genghis Khan’s father. But she didn’t just submit. She helped her first husband escape by letting herself be captured. Then, when Genghis Kahn’s father suddenly died, the whole family was left to die by the rest of their group. But Genghis Kahn’s mother had different plans. She kept the family alive against all odds. She was even willing to marry her step-son (only one year older than her own son) to make the family cohesive. But this is when Genghis Kahn’s conquering spirit fired up – he didn’t want his mother marrying his brother, because then his brother’s place as head-of-household would be solidified. Instead, he encouraged his younger brother to shoot the elder. Interestingly, when he formed universal laws for his empire later in his life, such intra-family killings were outlawed. 

After the incident with his brother, the narrative began to follow Genghis Khan rather than his parents. What I found interesting about this part of the book was that he was not portrayed as a conquering tyrant as he generally is in modern media. He was portrayed as cunning and wise. His laws were fair, reasonable, and well-thought-out. There was only very a little talk of battle strategy and history in this book. I had wished to have more of such information, but I can always read a different biography of Genghis Kahn. The purpose of Weatherford’s book was not to chronicle a history of Genghis Khan’s wars but to give a previously unseen glimpse into Genghis’ private life, personality, and how his legacy changed the world.

One thing that I found particularly wise about Genghis Kahn was his realization that nepotism does not necessarily lead to the most devoted followers. Promoting one’s family first was common among his people, so Genghis Kahn was breaking cultural norms when he promoted by loyalty first. And it was amazing what kind of loyalty he inspired. He must have been a very charismatic man. 

The final part of the book was about Genghis Kahn’s legacy. How his universal laws shaped the area even after they were neglected by his descendants. How his descendants spread around the world and made their own little kingdoms. How the trade routes he created became the major East-to-West connection for centuries – a connection that Columbus was trying to rebuild when he attempted to sail around the world to India. 

Truly a fascinating read. 

Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King

Devil in the Grove:
Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
by Gilbert King, narrated by Peter Francis James
In this 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, Devil in the Grove is about Thurgood Marshall’s (“Mr Civil Rights” and arguably one of the best lawyers of the 20th century) work to save three black men accused of gang raping a 17 year old girl.

Gilbert King did an amazing amount of research for this book including reading the FBI’s Groveland case files and the NAACP’s legal defense files – and this research really shone through. His prose was acerbic at times, and it flowed smoothly keeping my interest the whole way through. Devil in the Grove gave a lot of background information on Thurgood Marshall’s life outside of the of the trial, thus bringing a personal light to the story. Gilbert also included stories about KKK activities against lawyers who defended black people accused of rape, which was terrifying and disgusting. 

Overall, a fantastic book. Read it. 

The Buried Book, by David Damrosch

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
by David Damrosch, narrated by William Hughes
This is an interesting study of the discovery of the tablets that comprise the most complete sections of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It starts with a discussion about the archaeologists involved in discovering the tablets – what trials they underwent while digging, politics behind their dig, and even quarrels between archaeologists. (Sounds like Wallis E Budge was a jerk despite his fame.) The most interesting story was that of George Smith. He came from a working class background, but he had a brilliant ability to learn languages so he moved up to a classier job as apprentice in a printing shop. He spent all of his free time in the British Library learning languages and looking at ancient documents. Eventually he was hired on, first as a volunteer, and then as a full-fledged member of the team to research ancient Babylonian tablets. He was the one to discover the flood story within The Epic of Gilgamesh and he got so excited that he ran around the library in a “state of undress.” (How much undressed he was remains a mystery. But I don’t imagine he ran naked through the library yelling Eureka! or anything. He probably took off his jacket and loosened his tie.)

The book then jumps back to the time of Ashurbanipal  (668-627 BCE), a historical king of Nineveh who collected rare literature from around the world (at least the world within reach of himself). It was inside this buried library, which was destroyed in the fall of Nineveh, that the most complete set of tablets for Gilgamesh was discovered. Buried Book tells of Ashurbanipal’s father, who was severely depressed and paranoid. He couldn’t read and was terrified that his assistants were hiding things from him when they read correspondences. Historians believe that this may be why Ashurbanipal was encouraged to learn to read at a young age. I found this section quite interesting and wished that there were more to it than there was. Though I suppose you can’t say THAT much about a historical figure about whom only fragments of records exist. 

The Buried Book then retreats farther into a short analysis of Gilgamesh with historical perspective. It discusses how the trip to tame Humbaba in the forest may have represented Gilgamesh’s famed war to retrieve wood in other parts of Persia. 

Finally, The Buried Book jumped back to how Gilgamesh has affected modern readers – including a longish section on Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Hussein could see Gilgamesh in himself and this impacted his philosophy on ruling. I was pretty interested to hear that Hussein had written a decent novel – I had no clue! Of course, chances are someone else wrote it from Hussein’s notes, but still. Very interesting. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Historical Background

History of the epic

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest epic still in existence. Coming from the third millennium BCE, it predates Homer’s epics by at least one and a half thousand years. It is from a time long forgotten by historians – only rediscovered in the last century by archaeologists in the Middle East. The fascinating part about the Epic of Gilgamesh is that even though it is 5 millennia old the humanity and passion of the story still resonate with readers today. 

The most complete version of Gilgamesh yet discovered is a series of eleven tablets in the Akkadian language found in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal  (668-627 BCE) was a great king of the Assyrian empire and a collector of literature from all over the Middle East. His library disappeared after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, and was uncovered by archaeologists in 1839. The tablets were transferred to the British Museum where they received little attention until 1873, when a scholar named George Smith realized that they included an account of the flood (recounted in the Bible as the story of Noah’s ark). This announcement set off an immediate sensation because it suggested that the authors of the Bible might have been familiar with Gilgamesh’s story (though possibly both versions come from an earlier source). After this discovery, archaeologists dug up more and more tablets and scholars busied themselves with translations. Unfortunately, some of the tablets are fragmented, and the story has to be pieced together from different versions. This leaves the story very open to interpretation. 

Who was Gilgamesh?

The character of Gilgamesh is thought to be based on a real king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (Erech in the Bible). The historical Gilgamesh probably raised up the famous walls of Uruk, described in glorious detail in the epic. The walls had a 6 mile perimeter and more than nine hundred towers. Its ruins are near the town of Warka, in southern Iraq. Archaeologists date parts of the wall to around 2700 BCE, so they believe Gilgamesh may have lived around then. According to the “Sumerian king list,” Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the founding dynasty of Uruk. 

Gilgamesh was clearly a great builder – not only building the great wall, but also restoring the shrine of the goddess Ninlil. He very likely led a successful expedition to retrieve timber from the lands to the North – a story which was related in the epic.  

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 

The New Testament Canon, by Harry Y Gamble

The New Testament Canon, by Harry Y. Gamble

Reason for reading: This is one of the supplementary books for the great course The New Testament (The Great Courses, Course Number 656), by Bart D. Ehrman. 

Thoughts: This short “guide to biblical scholarship” glossed over some of the reasons certain books, and not others, were chosen for the New Testament canon. This is a very heavy topic with lots of scholarship, and this book tended to disagree with most of the specific theories in favor of the broader theory that there’s no evidence that any specific movement had a great impact on the formation of the New Testament canon, but added all together they DID have an impact. I found this book rather dense at times. It assumed prior knowledge of the topic, which I’m only beginning to study. 

Chapter 2: The History of the New Testament Canon

The history of the New Testament (NT) canon must be pieced together on fragmentary evidence. There are a couple types of evidence that are useful: 1) The contents of the ancient manuscripts of the NT together with scriptural aids like concordances or prologues. This evidence is mainly from the fourth and fifth centuries. 2) The use of early Christian documents written from the second through the fifth centuries. By noting early scholars’ allusions to various texts, we can deduce which of these early texts were widely accepted.

The gospels which were incorporated into the NT did not gain clear prominence until the late second century. Mark, written around 65, appears to have been the first narrative gospel. But it originally ended at 16:8 and thus lacked any post-resurrection narrative of Jesus. John, too, was originally lacking sections that were later accepted as gospel – Chapter 21 was not composed by the same person that wrote the rest of the Gospel of John. Additionally, the story of the adulteress (John 7:53 – 8:11) wasn’t originally part of the Gospel of John. These discrepancies might have cast doubt on the authoritative truth of these gospels. Furthermore, having too many gospels, especially ones that seem to contradict each other, cast doubt on the adequacy of any gospel. 

The first evidence for a collection of four Gospels was in a document written by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul, writing around the year 180. There is also evidence of a four-gospel collection in the Muratorian canon list, which claims that the diversity of the gospels “matters nothing for the faith of believers.” This comment suggests that some people had indeed found the discrepancies in the gospels disturbing.

The formation of a four-gospel collection was neither a necessity nor a natural outcome of the history of gospel literature in the early church. It is a compromise which balances an unmanageable number of gospels and a single self-sufficient gospel. Writers of the period tend to speak of the group of gospels as “gospel” (singular); thus, there are not four gospels but a fourfold gospel. Thus a balance is reached between two extremes. 

There are several theories as to why Paul’s letters gained the widespread appreciation that led to their placement in the canon. 

One theory is that because his letters were highly valued by the communities he wrote to, they all sent his letters to neighboring communities so that everyone could share. But if this were the case, why did some letters survive and others disappear? And why did the author of Acts of the Apostles not mention the letters, if they were so important? 

Another theory (Goodspeed’s) is that Paul’s letters were highly valued by one scholar, who went out of his way to collect as many of them as he could. He then wrote the letter to the Ephesians, in Paul’s name, as an introduction to his collection. That would explain the difference in writing styles of that letter to the rest of them. Gamble suggests that this is an extremely romantic theory, but with no evidence to support it.

Another scholar (Schmithals) changed Goodspeed’s theory a bit to say that the collector/editor of the letters did so to create a weapon against gnosticism, since many of Paul’s letters contain comments that are in opposition to gnostic spirituality. Again, there’s no evidence that this theory is true, and it’s too complex to accept without evidence. (Occam’s Razor and all that jazz.)

Schenke suggested that the letters were collected by a Pauline school of scholars that valued Paul’s teaching. This theory seems to be the most attractive to our author Gamble. 

Chapter 3: Factors in the Formation of the Canon

In the early years of Christianity, there were several Christian movements. Many theologians suggest that the New Testament was developed specifically to refute the claims of one or more of these movements. Gamble lists a few of them, and provides the arguments for and against particular groups having strong influence on the formation of the NT. Although Gamble does not support beliefs that any of these groups had much influence on the NT formation, he does suggest that all of them together could have had a larger effect on the NT.

The Marcionite Christians (second century) – movement begun by Marcion, a shipowner-turned-scholar who arrived in Rome in about the year 140. Marcionites Believed that there was an angry Jewish Creator God and a good God that Jesus came to save us from. Since Jesus was not created by the Creator God, he did not have a corporal body – he only appeared to. Thus, Jesus was not human, but he was divine. (This would sorely undervalue Jesus’ gift of dying for our sins if he only appeared to suffer.) Because Judaism had nothing to do with Christianity (different Gods) the Jewish scriptures had no place in the Church. 

Marcion was the potentially the first scholar to compile a canon of literature – composed of the letters of Paul and Gospel of Luke. Some theologians believe that the Church adopted Paul’s letters into their canon because of pressures from Marcionites, and that it was compelled to compensate for Marcion’s bias towards Paul by including a variety of other apostolic writings to the canon. However, this theory does not explain why Paul’s letters were widely known before Marcion’s time. 

The Gnostic Christians – Believed that the real truth was only revealed to a select few. That when Jesus was baptized, a spirit entered him and he became the savior who taught the way to salvation. This spirit left Jesus and returned to heaven when Jesus was dying on the cross. We, also, are spiritual in nature, stuck in corporal bodies. (This doesn’t fit exactly with the way Elaine Pagels described Gnostics in the two books of hers that I’ve read, but I guess there’s room for error in studying a group of people on which so little information is available.)

It is commonly supposed that the NT was developed as an effort to oppose The privacy of many Gnostic beliefs, which were only abailable to the select few, and to oppose the “heretical” literature circulated by the Gnostics. However, Gnostics made free use of canonical literature, too, and it seems that the major difference between Gnotics and the Church was more about interpretation than literature.

Montanism – The Montanists were followers of a charismatic prophet named Montanus who claimed that the Paraclete promised by Jesus in the Gospel of John had come, and the end of times were at hand. (Seems like the end of times was always at hand for millennia on end.) Many theologians suggest that the New Testament was formed as a retaliation against Montanism for two reasons. First, the Montanists created new prophetic documents and claimed authoritative truth that the Church wanted to refute. Second, Montanists claimed prophetic revelation and the Church claimed that all prophetic revelations were in times past – that Jesus was the last prophet. However, as with the Marcionites and the Gnostics, Gamble refutes claim that Montanism had much impact on creation of the NT. First of all, Montanists, like the Gnostics, made free use of the canonical literature, but had different interpretations. Second, at the time that Montanism was popular the Holy Spirit and prophetic charisma were accepted by even the anti-Montanists in the Church.

In addition to the groups above, these Early Christian groups were outlined in Chapter 1 of Bart D. Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. I thought it would fit in well with these notes on Gamble’s book.

The Jewish Christian Adoptionists – Believed that Jesus was born a human of a non-virgin. He was adopted by God as His son upon baptism. Jesus was not, however, divine. (I could believe this pretty easily if I were inclined to have fixed beliefs.)

Proto-Orthodox Christians – These are the ones that modern Christianity sprouted from. They believed that Jesus was divine and human. They believed there was only one God. 

Another factor possibly affecting the formation of the New Testament is that the technology to create a codex large enough to hold the entire NT was not developed until the fourth century.

Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society: The Church and Jews in Italy – Enrollment!

Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society: The Church and Jews in Italy

Well, I’ve shown a terrible lack of discipline this week. Quite against the spirit of Resolution 5: Please, Just Stop! I have signed up for several Coursera MOOCs this year – Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society begins on March 10, and runs for 6 weeks. I intend to post my thoughts on this course weekly. 

a little later…
I’ve now looked over all the lecture notes for the first week and I’m so thrilled at all the wonderful supplemental reading suggestions provided by Dr. Cooperman! One reason I only rarely sign up for these Coursera classes is because I have an OCD need to read all suggested readings and totally immerse myself in a subject. And such a thing simply isn’t possible within a course’s time-frame. And then I get all nervous and shaky and feel overwhelmed. So I tend to focus on Great Courses lecture series instead, because I can go as slowly as I want. But I really love being able to interact and network with people who have similar interests (albeit different opinions) – and that’s what I love about Coursera.  

So I’ve vowed that I will simply move through this entire course and not fret about reading everything. I’ll just write down all the suggested readings, and I can get to them later during my personal studies.

Does anyone else have this tendency to get frustrated when you can’t read everything, or to over-commit to your passions and interests?

How do we know about Jesus?

As I pointed out in my New Years Resolutions, this year I have decided to explore my relationship with Jesus. Who is Jesus, and what does he mean to me? This has always been a sticky question that I avoided. My first book in my quest is: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. Borg is a liberal Jesus historian and Wright a conservative one. The book is a set of essays which outlines an ongoing discussion that these two friends have continued for years. 

In the introduction, they list three target audiences: first, they hope that this book will be of interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

“We both believe strongly that what we say about Jesus and the Christian life belongs, not in a private world, inaccessible and incomprehensible except ‘from faith to faith,’ but in the public world of historical and cross-cultural study, in the contemporary world as well as the church.”

Second, they hope that this book will provide new insight into a debate that has become gridlocked among Christians – liberal vs. conservatives.

Third, they hope that their book will speak to people who want to better understand how different visions of Jesus translate into Christian life. This, I suppose, is why I bought the book originally – though the academic arguments will probably be of more interest to me. 🙂

In their first section, they ask the question: How do we know about Jesus? In their separate essays, Borg and Wright point out the difficulties of deciphering the historical data about Jesus. They agree that everybody’s interpretation of history is viewed through the lens of their own perception or worldview. Borg describes four lenses through which he views Jesus: 

  1. Gospels are history remembered as well as history metaphorized
  2. Jesus was a Jewish figure teaching and acting within Judaism
  3. Jesus’ legacy was developed by the community of early Christians
  4. Jesus’ legacy was developed by a variety of modern forms of Christianity, as well as other religions.
Borg and Wright agree that modern secular culture, which believes that the universe can be studied, understood, and described by natural laws, can be used as a weapon against faith. Borg says that it is easy to lose sight of the divine Jesus when you have a strongly secular worldview. Wright points out that with a secular worldview, you are focused on data and theories. Both scientists and historians ask the questions: 

Does the theory make sense of the available data? Does it have the appropriate simplicity? Does it shed lights on other areas of research? 

History differs from science in that there are no agreed-on criteria for what counts as “making sense” and “simplicity.” Therefore, it is very hard to for Jesus historians to come up with any consensus. 

Both Wright and Borg focus on the difficulty of working out the historical evidence of Jesus and the gospels. Borg thinks it is necessary to see and appreciate both the historical Jesus and the spiritual one, lest you lose sight of Jesus altogether. These two entities are not the same – the first is an actual man who was once alive, the second is a concept that has influenced spirituality for thousands of years. 

“When we emphasize his divinity at the expense of his humanity, we lose track of the utterly remarkable human being that he was.” 

On the other hand, Borg believes that if you emphasize only historical fact and what Jesus meant in his own time to his own people, you lose sight of how strongly his message has influenced today’s culture, and what he means to us today. 

In contrast, Wright says that he doesn’t think the early Christians made a distinction between the historical Jesus and the divine Jesus, so why should he? He feels that these “two versions” of Jesus are one and the same, and that whenever he reads literature about the historical Jesus, it reinforces his faith in the spiritual Jesus. 

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Borg on this subject. I think that he nailed my problem directly on the head: all my life I’ve tried to combine the historical Jesus and the divine Jesus into one entity. Thus, my faith and my secular worldview were battling for prominence in my perception of Jesus, and I lost sight of Him altogether. If I can separate the two entities in my head, I will be able to appreciate both the wisdom of the historical man and the divine love of the Christ Jesus. 

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map

Written by Steven Johnson, Narrated by Alan Sklar

Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read

Genre: Non-fiction – Medicine and History

The Ghost Map follows Dr. John Snow on his quest to discover the cause of a terrible cholera outbreak in Victorian England. Johnson makes investigative epidemiology so interesting that I could almost see it dramatized (and fictionalized) into a TV show – people DO love their investigative TV! 🙂 But that’s beside the point, I guess. At the time of this outbreak in 1854, the popular theory for the spread of cholera was miasma – deathly air that carried disease. After a LOT of investigative footwork, Snow drew a map of the cholera outbreak, demonstrating that the pattern followed streets that led to a particular well (the Broad Street pump) rather than following a circular pattern you’d expect with the spread of bad air. This map, and the investigation leading up to its creation, revolutionized epidemiology. In fact, many consider Snow the “first epidemiologist.” 

I really enjoyed this book. The writing was engaging (it had a few boring parts in the end when Johnson was describing the map in great detail – I think that may be a problem with listening to the audio book rather than actually reading it, though). The subject was fascinating. Sklar did a good job of narrating the book, and except for the very end with the description of the map, I was quite pleased with the book’s audio version. If you have any interest in epidemiology, or the history of medicine, I highly recommend this book.

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

Written by Thomas E. Woods, Narrated by Barrett Whitener

Reason for Reading: I have an interest in Church history and history of religion. 

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is an apologetics treatise about how the Catholic Church contributed to the development of science, philosophy, art, and culture. For someone who has not read a lot of books on the subject – who wishes to be disabused of the belief that the Catholic Church shunned science and tried to halt the progression of culture – this book is an excellent introduction. It covers a wide variety of topics in a superficial survey of how the Church changed and promoted civilization. On the other hand, if you’re like myself and are well-read on the subject, this book lacks depth. Although there was a wide variety of information discussed, there was very little that it discussed in greater detail than I already knew. Therefore, I would highly recommend this text to someone who’d like an introduction to the topic – it’s well-written, well-researched, and interesting. But if you’re looking for depth and detail, this may be worth just a quick read. 

This audiobook was well-narrated by Barrett Whitener. No complaints there! 🙂

Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

Written by Nancy Marie Brown

Reason for Reading: This book was provided by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. 

This engaging biography describes the life of Snorri Sturluson, a powerful 12th-century Icelandic chieftain and the author of the poetic Edda – one of the oldest surviving documents of Norse mythology. As a novice of Viking history, I found this book fascinating and informative – though I suspect that there is much speculation and Brown isn’t always clear when she is speculating and when she has hard evidence for her claims. As such, I think this biography would be enjoyed by people who are interested in learning a bit about the Vikings, but not experts on the subject. 

Brown started each chapter out with a legend out of Snorri’s Edda. Often, she told how this legend differs from other known versions and/or how it has affected modern culture. The rest of the book describes Snorri’s life – his youth in the household of “the uncrowned King of Iceland,” his marriage, his rise to political power, and his downfall. She seemed to get most of her hard evidence from a few primary documents and an outwardly biased biography written by Snorri’s nephew, so often she had to fill in the gaps by saying “it’s possible it happened more like this, since his nephew’s story doesn’t really jive with Snorri’s personality.” Of course, that makes me wonder if she had just as much positive bias towards Snorri as his nephew had negative bias. 🙂 Overall, though, I’d say this biography was a success. When there is so little information available, and when the book is intended for a popular crowd rather than an academic one, such speculation is necessary – it makes the book more fun.